List of wealthiest historical figures

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Many historical individuals have been described as one of "the wealthiest" ever. This list presents individuals prior to the beginning of contemporary history (which began after World War II) and gathers published estimates of their (inflation-adjusted) net worth.

For the period after the Industrial Revolution, wealth can be measured more or less objectively via inflation adjustment. For the periods of history before that, comparison of wealth becomes more problematic, principally due to the inaccuracy or unreliability of records, and also due to the difficulty of comparing a pre-industrial economy to a modern one, and especially in the presence of an absolute monarchy, where an entire kingdom or empire is considered the ruler's personal property.

Excluding monarchs and autocrats, the wealthiest private individuals in the history of capitalism are variously identified as Jakob Fugger, who was of the Early Modern Fugger family of merchants and bankers,[1] prominent figures of India's Delhi Sultanate, Bengal Sultanate and the Mughal Empire and early-20th-century American entrepreneurs Andrew Carnegie[2] and John D. Rockefeller.

While the Rothschild family rose to the status of the wealthiest family of bankers in the 19th century, their wealth was distributed among a number of family members, preventing them from appearing among the wealthiest of individuals. The richest among the Rothschilds was the head of its English branch—Nathan Mayer Rothschild —the richest person of his time.[3] Bernstein and Swan in All the Money in the World (2008) mention the top four richest Americans ever—all tycoons of the Gilded Age—respectively: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William Henry Vanderbilt. Henry Ford was ranked only the 12th.[4]

According to Close (2016), the wealthiest woman in the history of capitalism, excluding monarchs, was L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, whose net worth was $40.7 billion in 2015.[5] Including monarchs, he mentions Empress Wu for Antiquity, Razia Sultana and Isabella of Castile for Middle Ages, and Catherine the Great for modern history.[6]

Private individuals[edit]

Name Principal country of residence Lifetime Net worth modern equivalent (billion US $) Description
Albrecht Dürer - Jakob Fugger, the Wealthy - WGA07011.jpgJakob Fugger Wappen Augsburg 1811.svg Imperial City of Augsburg

( Holy Roman Empire)

1459–1525
(66 years)
$221–400 billion[7][8][9] German merchant, mining entrepreneur and banker, referred to as "Fugger the Rich". He expanded the Fugger family's assets by spreading their operations across Europe. At one point, Fugger and his family had an almost monopolistic hold on the European copper market.[10] At his death, Jakob Fugger bequeathed to his nephew Anton Fugger company assets totaling 2,032,652 guilders.[11] American journalist Greg Steinmetz has estimated his overall wealth to be around US$400 billion in today's money, equivalent to 2% of the GDP of Europe at that time.[8][12]
Stephen Girard by JR Lambdin.jpgStephen Girard  United States 1750–1831
(81 years)
$105–120 billion[13][14] French-born American banker. Before becoming a banker, he was a merchant and owned a fleet of trading ships.
John Wesley Jarvis - John Jacob Astor - Google Art Project.jpgJohn Jacob Astor  United States 1763–1848
(85 years)
$120–138 billion[14] German-American businessman, merchant, opium smuggler, fur trader, and investor. In 1801, Astor's nominal wealth was some $250,000, and by the time of his death in 1848 his fortune had grown to $20 million, making him America's first multi-millionaire.[15][16][17]
Cornelius Vanderbilt Daguerrotype2.jpgCornelius Vanderbilt  United States 1794–1877
(82 years)
$105–205 billion[18][14] American business magnate and philanthropist who built his wealth in railroads and shipping.
William Henry Vanderbilt by Eastman Johnson 1886.jpgWilliam Henry Vanderbilt  United States 1821–1885
(64 years)
$105–205 billion[19][14] Railroad owner. Inherited much of his wealth from his father, Cornelius Vanderbilt,[13] who initiated the Vanderbilt family's involvement in railroad and shipping business. He doubled his father's fortune, to an amount estimated between $52 billion and $239 billion (inflation adjusted).[20]
Andrew Carnegie, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly left, 1913 (cropped).jpgAndrew Carnegie  United States 1835–1919
(83 years)
$310 billion[21] Scotland-born Carnegie founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which was the most extensive integrated iron and steel operations in the United States; in 1901, Carnegie sold his company for $480 million to J.P. Morgan, who then merged his company into U.S. Steel.[22] Capitalized at $1.4 billion at the time, U.S. Steel was the first billion-dollar company in the world. In his final years, Carnegie's net worth was $475 million, but by the time of his death in 1919 he had donated most of his wealth to charities and other philanthropic endeavors and had only $30 million left to his personal fortune. Carnegie's hundreds of millions accounted for about 0.60% of the U.S. annual GDP and has a real value estimated at about $75 billion adjusted for the late 2000s (decade).[15][16]
Portrait of 49-year-old John D. Rockefeller.jpgJohn D. Rockefeller  United States 1839–1937
(97 years)
$318–420 billion[21] On September 29, 1916, Rockefeller became the first person ever to reach a nominal personal fortune of $1 billion (equivalent to $17 billion in 2020).[23] Rockefeller amassed his fortune from the Standard Oil company, of which he was a founder, chairman and major shareholder. By the time of his death in 1937, estimates (if using his wealth as a percentage of US GDP) place his net worth in the range of $300 billion to $400 billion. Using the inflation model, in adjusted dollars for May 2022, his net worth would be $26.1 billion.[24][25]
Henry ford 1919.jpgHenry Ford  United States 1863–1947
(84 years)
$188–199 billion Henry Ford was an American automotive engineer, entrepreneur, and founder of the Ford Motor Company. By designing the Model T Ford with mass production in mind and employing the assembly line method of rapid production, he was able to radically lower the base price of his automobiles and reach a wider market. As production increased, Ford further reduced prices and increased salaries to reduce worker turnover. This resulted in a rapid increase in output, with Ford production rising from roughly 18,000 cars in 1909 to over 1 million cars in 1920. Despite Ford stating that his focus was increasing Ford Motor Company's benefit to society and to its employees, even at one point being sued by the Dodge brothers based on this premise, his company was massively profitable. His highest earnings were recorded at age 57 and he died at the age of 83 in 1947 at a net worth of $188.1 billion (inflation-adjusted value in 2008 dollars).[26]

Post-antiquity heads of state[edit]

Absolute rulers or conquerors are sometimes listed for the territory they controlled rather than for their immediate personal wealth.[27] Davidson (2015) for TIME.com listed the four Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb) and their ancestors Genghis Khan and Timur as being the wealthiest historical figures based on their imperial possessions, while Alan Rufus is listed as one of the wealthiest historical figures for his immediate possessions within the feudal system of Norman England.[21]

Name Principal country of residence Lifetime Description
William the Conqueror (13015134064).jpg William the Conqueror Normandy
England
 France
(included parts of modern-day  France, the  United Kingdom)
c. 1028–1087 William the Conqueror became personally enormously wealthy from spoils of war during the Norman Conquest of England.[28]
William de Warenne - Magna Carta Maquettes at Westgate Canterbury (4).JPG William de Warenne,
1st Earl of Surrey
 England
 France (included parts of modern-day  France, the  United Kingdom)
d. 1088 Fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings and was rewarded with considerable land holdings in England.[13][28][29]
Alan Rufus.png
Alan Rufus
 England
Normandy
Brittany Brittany
 France
(included parts of modern-day  France
c. 1040–1093 Alan Rufus, 1st Lord of Richmond, was a relative and companion of William the Conqueror (Duke William II of Normandy) during the Norman Conquest of England. By 1086 he had become one of the richest and most powerful men of England.[28]
Mansa Musa.jpg Musa I of Mali Mali Empire c. 1280 – c. 1337 Mansa Musa, or Musa I of Mali is considered one of the richest people ever. Musa was the ninth emperor of the Mali Empire, one of the prosperous Sahelian kingdoms that developed along the trans-saharan trade routes in the later medieval period. Mansa Musa made his fortune by exploiting his country's salt and gold production, along with the slave and ivory trade.[30][21][31][32] Musa is said to have brought several tonnes of gold to Mecca when he made a pilgrimage there in 1324, deflating the value of gold across much, if not all, of North Africa. Reported as being inconceivably rich by contemporaries, "There's really no way to put an accurate number on his wealth."[33] Rough estimates say the equivalent of ~$400 billion.
Richard fitzAlan.jpg Richard FitzAlan,
10th Earl of Arundel
 England
 France (included parts of modern-day  France, the  United Kingdom
c. 1306–1376 English nobleman and admiral. Succeeded to the Earldom of Surrey in 1347 (adding to his wealth) and made very large loans to King Edward III.[13]
Johnofgaunt.jpg
John of Gaunt
 England
 France (included parts of modern-day  France, the  United Kingdom
1340–1399 Third son of King Edward III of England. Duke of Lancaster. Owned land in almost every county in England, with a household comparable to that of a monarch.[34]
AkbarAkbar the Great Flag of the Mughal Empire (triangular).svgMughal Empire (Included parts of modern-day  India,  Pakistan,  Afghanistan,  Bangladesh) 1542-1605

(63 years)

Controlled an empire that accounted for about one-fourth of global economic output.[21][35]
CroppedStalin1943.jpgJoseph Stalin  Soviet Union Leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953 National dictator controlling 9.6% of global GDP. Stalin had absolute power to direct the wealth of the Soviet Union toward any end he wanted. The modern equivalent to what he controlled would be nearly $7.2 trillion (inflation-adjusted value in 2017 dollars).[36][21]
Mir Osman Ali's portrait in Andhrapatrika.jpgMir Osman Ali Khan  Hyderabad State (Present-day  India) 1886–1967
(81 years)
The last Nizam of Hyderabad State in British India, he is regarded as the wealthiest person in the world during his lifetime; his portrait was on the cover of Time magazine in 1937.[37] As a semi-autonomous monarch, he had his own mint, printing his own currency, the Hyderabadi rupee, and had a private treasury that was said to contain £100m in gold and silver bullion, and a further £400m of jewels (in 2008 terms). The major source of his wealth was the Golconda mines, the only supplier of diamonds in the world at that time.[38][39] Among them was the Jacob Diamond, valued at some £50m (in 2008 terms),[40][41][42] and used by the Nizam as a paperweight.[43]

Antiquity[edit]

For Classical Antiquity, even more than for the High Middle Ages, the definition of personal wealth becomes difficult to compare with the modern period; especially in the case of divine kings such as the pharaohs and Roman Emperors, where an entire empire might be considered the personal property of a deified emperor.

Name Principal country of residence Lifetime Description
Statue-Augustus.jpgAugustus Roman Empire 63 BC – AD 14 Listed by Time Magazine with "$4.6 trillion" because he "personally owned all of Egypt".[21] According to Stanford history professor Ian Morris, the Roman Empire under Augustus was responsible for 25% to 30% of the world's economic output and Augustus himself at one point held personal wealth equivalent to one-fifth of his empire's economy.[21]
Late Roman Republic bust in the Glyptothek, Copenhagen.jpgMarcus Licinius Crassus Roman Republic 115 BC – 53 BC Crassus inherited a fortune of 7 million sesterces after the death of his father in 87 BC, Publius Licinius Crassus. After several years of exile, Crassus was able to rebuild his family fortune by seizing the property of executed convicts for himself.[44] Crassus also expanded his wealth by trading in slaves and by purchasing whole neighborhoods of Rome as they burned, for drastically less than market value. Crassus was known in Rome as Dives, meaning "The Rich". It is believed that Crassus expanded his personal fortune to 170 million sesterces, while Pliny the Elder surmised his fortune to be valued even higher, at 200 million sesterces. This would place Crassus's net worth equal to the total annual budget of the Roman treasury.

Crassus has often been listed among the "wealthiest individuals in history", although depending on the estimate of the "adjusted value" of a Roman sesterce, his net worth may also be placed in the range of $200 million to $20 billion.[45]

Alexander The Great statue - estatua de Alejandro Magno.jpgAlexander the Great Macedonia (Ancient kingdom) 356–323 BC Alexander's exact wealth is unknown, but historians believe that he is one of history's richest people.[46]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Daniel Eckert,So wurde Jakob Fugger zum reichsten Menschen der Historie ("This is how Jakob Fugger became the wealthiest person in history"), Die Welt, 6 June 2016 (in German). "Auf heutige Verhältnisse hochgerechnet läge das Vermögen des Bauernenkels bei unglaublichen 400 Milliarden Dollar (354 Milliarden Euro). In die Nähe dieses Wertes kamen nur die Rothschilds, die in ihrer Glanzzeit im 19. Jahrhundert die mächtigste Bankiersfamilie der Welt waren" ("Adjusted to current-day conditions, the net worth of the farmer's grandson would be close to astonishing 400 billion dollars (354 billion euro). Only the Rothschild family, at their peak in the 19th century the most powerful family of bankers, came close to such a figure.")
  2. ^ listed at 372 billion US$2014 by Jacob Davidson, time.com The 10 Richest People of All Time, 30 July 2015: "Rockefeller gets all the press, but Andrew Carnegie may be the richest American of all time. The Scottish immigrant sold his company, U.S. Steel, to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in 1901. That sum equates to about slightly over 2.1% of U.S. GDP at the time, giving Carnegie economic power equivalent to $372 billion in 2014."
  3. ^ GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History p. 65
  4. ^ All the Money in the World (2008) by Bernstein and Swan, p. 17 "Introduction"
  5. ^ Kerry Close, The 10 Richest Women of All Time, time.com, 1 February 2016. Bettencourt ranks at #6 in this list, after five ancient rulers and monarchs of the Middle Ages and early modern period.
  6. ^ Kerry Close, The 10 Richest Women of All Time, time.com. Empress Wu ranks at #1 in this list, Catherine the Great at #3, and Isabella of Castile at #5.
  7. ^ Daniel Eckert,So wurde Jakob Fugger zum reichsten Menschen der Historie ("This is how Jakob Fugger became the wealthiest person in history"), Die Welt, 6 June 2016 (in German). "Auf heutige Verhältnisse hochgerechnet läge das Vermögen des Bauernenkels bei unglaublichen 400 Milliarden Dollar (354 Milliarden Euro). In die Nähe dieses Wertes kamen nur die Rothschilds, die in ihrer Glanzzeit im 19. Jahrhundert die mächtigste Bankiersfamilie der Welt waren" ("Adjusted to current-day conditions, the net worth of the farmer's grandson would be close to astonishing 400 billion dollars (354 billion Euro). Only the Rothschild family, at their peak in the 19th century the most powerful family of bankers, came close to such a figure.")
  8. ^ a b Steinmetz, Greg. "Opinion: 7 money-making lessons from the richest man who ever lived". MarketWatch. Retrieved 2021-05-21.
  9. ^ Greg Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived - The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger, Simon & Schuster - 2015, page xiv
  10. ^ Peter Geffcken: Fugger – Geschichte einer Familie: "Die Handelsherren mit dem Dreizack". In: DAMALS 7/2004
  11. ^ "Anton Fugger". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  12. ^ Greg Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived - The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger, Simon & Schuster - 2015, page xiv
  13. ^ a b c d Gus Lubin, business insider The 20 Richest People Of All Time, 2 September 2010
  14. ^ a b c d Hargreaves, Steve (June 2014). "The richest Americans in history".
  15. ^ a b Staff (15 July 2007). "The Wealthiest Americans Ever". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
  16. ^ a b "Richest Americans in History". Forbes. 24 August 1998. Retrieved 22 December 2009.
  17. ^ "The richest Americans". Forbes. Archived from the original on September 16, 2009. Retrieved 22 December 2009.
  18. ^ Fortune Magazine's "richest Americans" Archived 2009-09-13 at the Wayback Machine. Fortune estimated his wealth at death at $105,000,000, or 1/87 of the nation's GDP.
  19. ^ Fortune Magazine's "richest Americans" Archived 2009-09-13 at the Wayback Machine. Fortune estimated his wealth at death at $105,000,000, or 1/87 of the nation's GDP.
  20. ^ "William Henry Vanderbilt". www.newnetherlandinstitute.org.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h Jacob Davidson, time.com The 10 Richest People of All Time, 30 July 2015
  22. ^ "The Men Who Built America: Andrew Carnegie". History.com.
  23. ^ Johnston, Louis; Williamson, Samuel H. (2022). "What Was the U.S. GDP Then?". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved February 12, 2022. United States Gross Domestic Product deflator figures follow the Measuring Worth series.
  24. ^ "$900 in 1913 → 2022 | Inflation Calculator".
  25. ^ Segall 2001, pp. 100.
  26. ^ "The 20 richest people of all time". lovemoney.com. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  27. ^ Davidson, Jacob (July 29, 2015). "How to Compare Fortunes Across History". Time. Archived from the original on July 31, 2015. Retrieved 2021-01-06.
  28. ^ a b c "Estimate from historian William Rubenstein via The Times, converted to dollars at average rate since '07 (1:1.7) and adjusted for inflation."The 20 Richest People Of All Time, 4 September 2010. "Although he became a monarch, we're counting the spoils of war before he took the throne, based on what he gave out to his sons Odo and Robert." "he left the equivalent of $229.5 billion to his sons."
  29. ^ The Domesday Book: England's Heritage Then and Now, ed. Thomas Hinde (UK: Coombe Books, 1996)
  30. ^ https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/one-dot-com/one-dot-com/uk/documents/subjects/humanities/history-topic-of-the-month-mansa-musa-print-worksheet.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwiMwvudsf75AhWchf0HHSGsCkoQFnoECAcQBQ&usg=AOvVaw1M0gr-9Vx7Hr6oylDEKNy9[dead link]
  31. ^ "Meet Mansa Musa I of Mali – the richest human being in all history". Independent.co.uk. 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2016-09-17.
  32. ^ "10 Richest People of All Time". 2016-09-04. Retrieved 2016-09-17.
  33. ^ Jacob Davidson. "The 10 Richest People of All Time". CNNMoney. Archived from the original on August 1, 2015..
  34. ^ Jonathan Sumption, Divided Houses: The Hundred Years War III (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), p. 9.
  35. ^ "The richest people of all time". lovemoney.com. Retrieved 2022-10-09.
  36. ^ estimate as of 2017
  37. ^ "The Nizam of Hyderabad". Time. Archived from the original on March 6, 2005.
  38. ^ "Globalisation of Golconda".
  39. ^ "Making money the royal way!". Retrieved 8 February 2019.
  40. ^ McCaffrey, Julie (3 February 2012). "Exclusive: The last Nizam of Hyderabad was so rich he had a £50m diamond paperweight". Mirror.co.uk. London.
  41. ^ Bedi, Rahul (12 April 2008). "India finally settles £1million Nizam dispute". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 2022-01-12.
  42. ^ "Exhibitions at National Museum of India, New Delhi(India)". 2 April 2009. Archived from the original on 2 April 2009.
  43. ^ Shah, Tahir. "Alan the Red, the Brit who makes Bill Gates a pauper." Times Online. The Sunday Times. 7 October 2007. Web. 19 9ay 2010.
  44. ^ Wallechinsky, David & Irving Wallace. "Richest People in History Ancient Roman Crassus". Trivia-Library. The People's Almanac. 1975–1981. Weborn 23 December 2009.
  45. ^ "Often named as the richest man ever, a more accurate conversion of sesterce would put his modern figure between $200 million and $220 billion." Peter L. Bernstein. The 20 Richest People Of All Time
  46. ^ Frank Lee Holt, The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man's Wealth Shaped the World

General bibliography[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]